Book Review: “Upgraded” Edited by Neil Clarke

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Upgraded Edited by Neil Clarke

Upgraded Edited by Neil Clarke

Upgraded (anthology)
Edited by Neil Clarke
Wyrm Publishing (September, 2014)

Better. Stronger. Faster. Do these words really describe what becoming a cyborg means? Authors in Neil Clarke’s new anthology UPGRADED contemplated this idea and each had a different take on human cyborgification. In the twenty-six futures offered there, humans are remade into living weapons, mining equipment, half-alien chimeras, fully cybernetic individuals, demigods, angels, and much more.

Few anthologies have an origin story as unusual as this one. In 2012, Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, suffered a severe heart attack and had to have a pacemaker installed afterwards. He became a cyborg, which prompted him to focus his first themed anthology on this topic. Part of the stories was solicited, part came from the slush. The final selection of stories is quite diverse and able to fit various tastes in fiction. In the space of this review, I cannot mention all of the stories in such a length they would deserve, therefore I’m going to focus more on those that have stuck in my head more stubbornly than the others.

Tongtong’s Summer by Xia Jia is by far the most optimistic, joyful story of the anthology and yet one that also contains great depths of grief, worry and sadness. Truly heartfelt, very realistically depicting what our very near future might look like and what effects might new technologies have on ordinary human lives. It was the most moving story to me and one of the highlights of the entire anthology.

Ken Liu’s The Regular captured me almost instantly by a surprising twist and continued to draw me deeper and deeper into the story. Its portrayal of augmentation was very realistic and Liu also incorporated some highly interesting small extensions of currently existing technologies. Both main characters—that of a private investigator Ruth Law and a murderer she’s chasing—were depicted in great detail and depth and their development was most interesting. Liu has a talent for describing the worlds in which his stories are set in a way that can make the reader imagine them better than their own. This one is very close to our own world today but Liu takes us places we might not really see unless we knew where to look for them. The Regular was, along with Tongtong’s Summer, my favorite of the anthology.

Coastlines of the Stars by Alex Dally MacFarlane is set in a world that reminded me of classic space opera: brave pilots mapping the universe in their own starships, space containing dangers in the form of scavengers, debris fields filled with traps, and human rather than computer-controlled navigation. Its captivating voice, interesting premise, and space opera nostalgia worked together very well and brought forth a piece worth recommendation.

Honeycomb Girls by Erin Cashier managed to stick in my mind due to the unusual voice of the storytelling and a strangely post-catastrophic but still not negatively portrayed world. However, this story’s take on cyborgs is very loose, since the closest element to this topic is replacement of humans in some roles by robots.

Seventh Sight by Greg Egan is one of the most “realistic” stories of the pack and one that made me imagine a brave new world of differently perceived colors. Elegantly simple, both in premise and implementation, it had a great effect and it’s one of the works that had stuck in my head.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew offers one of the most distant depictions of humanity in her Synecdoche Oracles. It follows several of her earlier stories but their knowledge is needless for the reader to enjoy this image of far future where the possibilities of augmentation are nearly endless, but human beings also stay deeply human.

What I’ve Seen With Your Eyes by Jason K. Chapman has by far the weirdest first sentence in the anthology, one that really catches the reader’s attention. While you may raise your eyebrows after reading it and wonder what on earth you’ve started on, the story soon takes you into a world not that far from ours and introduces a couple of sympathetic characters and interesting ideas, and is sure to make you both think and smile.

Collateral by Peter Watts deals with moral and ethical dilemmas and the way technological enhancements and interventions might change who we are. As is usual for the author, it offers a great deal of questions to ponder.

No Place to Dream, but A Place to Die by Elizabeth Bear is a tale of two cyborg miners working for different sides and forced by situation to solve a great problem together. Both main characters were believable and sympathetic and the tale itself very gripping and fast moving.

E. Lily Yu’s Musée de l’Âme Seule began as a story of rejection of deformed, injured or otherwise “ugly” perceived people and ended with the most justified use of second person storytelling I’ve ever encountered, which made me remember the otherwise very good but not too prominent story.

The Sarcophagus by Robert Reed, set in the author’s world of the Great Ship, was certainly one of the best depictions of our cyborg future in the anthology but the story itself didn’t draw me in so deeply.

Wizard, Cabalist, Ascendant by Seth Dickinson is a rather classic take on the singularity (or avoiding it). Tobias S. Buckell’s A Cold Heart is a simple action-packed story and the topic of gaining back one’s memory is not much explored. Action is also the major part of Madeline Ashby’s Come From Away. Mercury in Retrograde by Erin Hoffman represents classic cyberpunk, also with a lot of action involved. Similar in this characterization, albeit less classic and much more innovative, is Negative Space by Amanda Forrest. Some other pieces could not have been more different from these: Tender by Rachel Swirsky, Married by Helena Bell and Memories and Wire by Mari Ness represent the more experimental and feeling-centered stories, the first one being the most experimental piece and the last the most “conventional” of these three. The Cumulative Effect of Light Over Time by Catherine E. Tobler was a thought-provoking read but its style would work for me better if the story was more concise. Genevieve Valentine’s Small Medicine focused on personality simulation and perfect medicine and their impacts on life of a young girl and her family. The ideas and characters were strong but the story didn’t really pull me in.

Always The Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee is an interesting and enjoyable story, rich in character building and novelty of setting but not one where the reader is drawn in deep enough to really believe in the depicted world. Somewhat similar in its mythological representation of cyborg elements is Fusion by Greg Mellor, where certain augmented beings are perceived as angels. Oil of Angels by Chen Qiufan doesn’t have much in common with Fusion despite the angels in title; instead, it deals with voluntary choice of memory loss and its implications. God Decay by Rich Larson had a promising premise built on augments in sport but the execution of the ideas would be better to take us further than it really did. A.C. Wise’s Taking The Ghost was the only outright fantasy of the pack and set in this anthology didn’t work very well for me.

So how does our cyborg future look like in these stories? Most of the authors focused mainly on the negative side-effects while taking the positive side (life-saving therapies, survival in various environments etc.), which was explored countless times since long ago, more for granted. This aspect enabled a variety of views and greater focus on the characters. I would prefer the anthology to be organized to build more on the increasing level of cyborgification. Perhaps start with the very near future stories and move to the far future ones, which would give the reader a broader sense of the different ways through which our cyborg future might eventually take us. However, the order of stories in Upgraded made sense in terms of balancing the conventional and experimental, near and distant, optimistic and pessimistic sides of the stories. To me, Upgraded was certainly an enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking one. The majority of the stories evoked some sense of wonder, curiosity and imagination in me. That, in my view, is a marker of good science fiction.

Link to official site, including links to buy: Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke.

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Julie Novakova

About Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, journalist and evolutionary biologist. She started publishing in English in 2013 (The Brass City; The Symphony of Ice and Dust). Before that, she had published three novels and about twenty short stories in Czech. She also works as a reviewer, columnist and interviewer mainly for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.